Hacking away with Android pt 7 – Februari 2011 overview on what you can- and can not do with Android (devices)

Posted on February 11, 2011

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Although Android tablets are offered for Netbook and Notebook prices and perceived to be the “replacement” for Netbooks (like apparently Acer is assuming), Android tablets are far from “there”. As it its really hard to find anything about where we are right now with Android and where each tablet could be placed related to the others I decided to make some nifty charts to clarify things.

The overviews below give you a rough ballpark insight in where we are with Android and what still needs work. The tests are based on Android 2.2 and using the Archos gen 9 tablets (the Archos 101 and the Archos 32). As I done this in between hours, there is still a lot to test (Flash, productivity suites). I did not have the time to triple-check all data, and could not test all, so if you see something that is incorrect please inform me.

Related articles on this blog

  1. A look at the insides of the Archos 32 – some nice photos to show you the crafmanship of Archos.
  2. Extending the possibilities of your Android tablet – A overview and review from 2010 on applications to publish your Android device as a webDAV drive, do FTP transfers (instead of using the USB cable) and rooting
  3. Creating your own USB host cable – useful for the Archos 7 and Archos 32 series. It shows a simple setup with a USB hub to connect multiple devices – including a keyboard, mouse and memory stick to the device

Input and output

Where a 250 euro Netbook allows you to do all of the above, Android tablets leave you short-handed. This is kind of OK with things like attaching an external camera (you already have one on the tablet in most cases) and a Wacom tablet, but a different story when you want to scan or print documents and really are looking for something else than a clunky 1.5 kilo brick of plastic and electronics.

You can connect any device to the USB host plug of an Archos, and many (new to come) tablets will offer the same, so that is not the problem. The main reason is 3rd party drivers as in: “a printer driver for the HP Deskjet” and: “a scanner driver for the CanoScan”. They are simply not there yet for the Android platform.  The hardware is another limitation, for audio input (on the Archos). There simply is no microphone-in jack on an Archos tablet.

In the case of the Archos tablets, USB Host is available and you can connect hard drives, a USB mouse, USB keyboard and a USB hub to the device and – taken that the hardware is standard and the drive is formatted in FAT (32) or Linux Ext 2 or 3, you can read data from- and write data to the drive.

Streaming data between devices is possible, extending the options to acces and store data. Archos offers SMB or Samba as one of the protocols to connect to a server and via FTP or a DropBox application you can upload and download files from the web and local servers.

Google cloud printing and the cloud in general

Google cloud printing

The issue of non-present drivers on the Android platform might be circumvented by Cloud bases services like Google Cloud Print. With Google Cloud Print you send your document to a generic and web based “Print API” that will take care of the rest.

New printers should be offering a Cloud Print Service. Old printers can be used by connecting them to a “proxy” like a computer or router running the service.

Google Cloud Print is currently – apparently – still in Beta. Chrome 9 should contain a Cloud Printer.

(Curtosy to Warrenbzf who set me to investigate more on this service)

Using web-services and real-time push mechanisms, it can work the other way around as well. Any proxy-computer with a scanner or whatever device attached to it can send the results or real time data to the Android device, thus solving the issue of drivers and connectivity.

The disadvantage – until we have “Cloud Connected Hardware” – is that you need an extra machine to serve as the man in the middle.

What you can and can not do with external storage devices

Tested

When you connect an external storage device to the Archos 101 or Archos 32 running Android 2.1 or 2.2 it will only be able to mount only one drive and only one external partition. This is either:

  1. Multiple drives on one USB hub - when you have multiple drives on one USB hub – the one you plug in first will be mounted. The one after will not. When you unplug the first drive, the second – might – be mounted next.
  2. Multiple partitions on one drive – I did only test this superficially with a drive formatted with two FAT32 partitions. So I could be missed something.

The external drive can be anything that registers as external storage, including cameras, e-Book readers and memory sticks.

You can move data from the external drive to the memory stick and you can access this drive from another computer via FTP, if you install an Android FTP server like SwiFTP or something similar.

Assumptions

I have not tested Ext 2 or Ext 3 (Linux) yet. Based on remarks on several forums I assume it is possible and working for Android 2.2.

I also assumed that Android (on the Archos that is) will only recognize primary partitions.

Consequences

Let me give you a very simple use case:

Instead of my Netbook, I wanted to bring my Archos 101 to make photos and review them on the go and transfer them to an HDD when I arrived in a place where I had a power source (as the HDD eats a lot of energy and can drain your tablet battery).

I wanted to bring:

  1. My new Android tablet – to view and transfer my photos. It is nice, more compact and light-weight than a Netbook – which would be the second best option
  2. My1.5 inch external Hard Drive - to store my photos and allow me to clear my camera SD for more photos to make
  3. An USB Hub – to connect my camera and my hard drive to my tablet
  4. My digital camera – to make photos

Until I found that I can not directly transfer files form the camera to the HDD. Which dropped me back to my way more lumpy Netbook.

Specifications, price and performance

The diagram above renders several devices, including the iPad for reference. Prices on the Samsung Tab, Dell Streak and iPad vary from Quick conclusions:

  1. The iPad is quite similar to the Archos 101. Both regarding resolution (the iPad has 1024 x 768 where the Archos uses the – less useful – Netbook format 1024 x 600). Both sport a 1 GHz processor and 256 MB of RAM.
  2. As a tablet, the Dell Streak and the Samsung Galaxy are quite expensive. What makes them stand apart from the Archos tablets is the memory and the better (more resolution for smaller size) screen.
  3. The most important factor that distinguishes  the iPad from the Archos tablets is its screen
  4. All Archos tablets have a crappy screen and a low amount of memory – and I wish they would do something about that

Positioning the tablets against price and performance

I took two center axis:

  1. The “Netbook edge” – which is the average price of a Netbook (in Euro). Going above that level means you really have to offer something special other than: “It Is a Tablet!”
  2. The “Current standard” – which is “OK to what we have now”. This is relevant for the “price / performance = satisfaction” curve. Especially with tablets, the market is changing fast. A “high end” tablet sold now for 300 or 500 euro will be a “slow and worthless piece of crap” next year for which we would not willing to pay 100 euro.

The Archos and Creative ZIIO tablets are very close to that “Current standard” axis. Which means that about 6 months from now you will probably discard it and long for something better, faster and more productive (and with a better screen!).

Apparently, producing a high end tablet is much more expensive than producing a average Netbook. When looking at the possibilities (visualized in the size of the circles representing each device) and the price a Netbook offers way more than any Tablet – including making phone calls via 3G (using Skype or a specific 3G dongle).

The iPad – regardless of how awesome it is designed and built – scores very meager here. It is the tablet with the least amount of possibilities. It has no camera, no SD-card slot, no bluetooth, no option to dial out or receive phone calls.

The Archos tablets score reasonably good. What makes them “current standard” – soon to be “meh” –  is mostly their crappy screen (bad viewing angles) and the limited amount of RAM. The possibility to attach USB devices to it (directly or via an USB hub) and do stuff with bluetooth and via streaming media. Their processor and benchmark is close enough to the Samsung Galaxy Tab. And they do hardware accillerated 3D.

Below standard are what I called the “China tablets”. There are many, for sale for prices around 100 to 150 euro and of reasonable quality. But – according to tests on NetbookNews , for instance, they do not match up for the somewhat more expensive models. But: if you want to have yesterdays tablet for a good price, they are the ones to look for.

Again: comparing value for money of a Tablet to a Laptop or Netbook will show you the real differences.

Putting everything together in a bubble-chart

The bigger the bubble, the more it has or cost. Items are: Cost, CPU speed, RAM size, physical size of device, resolution of the screen, pixel density of the screen and quality of image when viewed from the side.

Looking at the CPU, most current tablets (produced in Q4 of 2010, available Februari 2011) are similar. Only the lower end Archos models (Archos 7 and Archos 32, Archos 28) have lower clock speeds. The “pixel density” is highest on the Archos 48 (5 inch screen with 800 x 480 pixels resolution), the Dell Streak (similar size and resolution) and the Samsung Galaxy Tab (7 inch screen with 1024 x 600 pixels)

The iPad scores average except on the viewing angle, which is good, and low on memory.

HDMI and multi-screens

I have only tested the Archos HDMI out option. What completely does not make any sense for me as a user is that my Tablet screen goes black. The HDMI out should either mirror my Tablet screen, or act as a second and higher resolution screen.

Looking forward, 2011 onwards

I do believe Tablets will become a replacement for Netbooks. With the new Dual Core ARM Cortex A9 processors and clock speeds of 2 GHz we are talking new raw processing power here.

What is missing – apart from the drivers and other things mentioned here – is a good pool of usable software. The few applications that allow you to open and edit Office documents or images are currently nothing more than toys. The parties that produce productivity software for Windows, OSX and Linux are not yet present on Android.

I would love to see:

  1. An Android port of Corel Draw – even if this is a version with the specifications of 1998
  2. A proper Android port of Office or Open Office – by whomever, allowing me to do proper document editing and stuff
  3. A proper and fast port of a multi-layer bitmap editing tool – with similar specifications as Photoshop 5
  4. Software to open and view RAW imaged from the photo camera – allowing me to see what is stored on my camera
  5. Software to tether to the photo camera – allowing me to extend the user interface of my digital camera using a tablet
  6. Dual screen via HDMI out – allowing me to go high-resolution with my tablet and use it as a dual screen light-weight desktop replacement

Hopefully hardware manufacturers – with Google – will look at making drivers for the most common of devices including: Printers and (document) Scanners. Android will hopefully also support multiple external drives, allowing you to transfer files from one device (like a camera) to another (like a HDD). And last: serial devices and serial interfaces allowing hackers to connect Arduino boards and XBee devices to the tablet.

With the dominance of Android tablets on CES, software and hardware manufacturers hopefully are waking up and start producing stuff for this specific platform. As it speaks Java and runs on ARM RISC processors we are not talking about moving to complete alien fields here.

Looking at the screen, Archos – and apparently the Creative ZIIO too, really undersold themselves. It is one of the more important things on a tablet for the long run and it will not hurt to go for something better next series. Looking at the resolution: what Samsung did makes complete sense if you have ever held a 7 inch tablet or a phone. The higher resolution makes for a more beautiful picture to look at and increases the sense of “value for money”. When all other things lag behind, the screen – as I noticed with my 2 year old Samsung Galaxy phone – remains the one single interface you HAVE to deal with on daily basis.

A good screen – next to good sound and the ability to smoothly play media files – is worth something if not mostly everything.

Processor wise, we can expect to see a lot of – hopefully affordable – dual core tablets in the second half of 2011. Speeds can go up to 2 GHz and ARM has designs for quad core processors, but I will not be surprised to see 1.2GHz and 1.5 GHz dual core machines in the 300 euro price levels first.

An unrequested advice to Archos

I love you, Archos and your tablets are very OK. But there are at least two things for you to do:

  1. Offer tablets with a better screen – It will do a lot for the brand. Either do it as an option – like 50 euros more – or continue the current tablets as you do with the Archos 7 v2 and use awesome screens for your new line of ARM Cortex A9 powered tablets.
  2. Put at least 1 GB RAM in the tablet – less obvious, but very relevant if you want to go somewhere with Flash, multi-tasking and more serious type of applications

If you can, there is a another one, that will make a lot of difference:

  1. Adjust the Android core so that it can mount multiple external partitions and drives – My gut feeling is that you will see that photographers will make a run for your tablets as they are compact and allow for on the road backups.

For those who love raw numbers

Below you will find the raw comparison table on the different tablets, as collected on February 11, 2011.

Excel sheet with comparisons. Green is good, orange is bad, yellow is so-so - Click to enlarge

Because I am a nerd, I color coded the things I like and do not like for clarity and your potential benefit.

The pricing of the Archos 70 and 101 are very OK, but not super amazing. You still pay a lot for a device that will be surpassed by a new version – very likely with a dual core processor and hopefully with more memory – in 6 months.

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